Cayman Turtle Farm
Activities, Natural sights
Cayman Turtle Farm is a conservation facility and tourist attraction located in the West Bay district of the Cayman Islands. It is used for raising the endangered Green Sea Turtle. Established in 1968 by a group of American and British investors as "Mariculture Limited", the farm was initially a facility used to raise the Green Sea Turtle for commercial purposes. By raising the turtle in a farming operation, the investors could raise turtle-meat for consumption without depleting the wild population of the species. Still in operation as a farm that breeds and raises turtles in order to sell product, the Cayman Turtle Farm has also become a research center and tourist attraction. Currently, the farm is a conservation project as well as the largest land-based attraction in the Cayman Islands. The turtle farm welcomes more than 500,000 visitors annually.
While on his maritime travels, Christopher Columbus, when coming across the Cayman Islands in 1503, called the islands "Las Tortugas", because of the abundance of Green Sea Turtles found there. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Cayman Islands became a stopping point for sea vessels sailing the Caribbean Sea in need of food; the turtles caught in the Caymans were taken aboard ship and kept alive as a source of fresh meat. As settlements and towns on the islands were established over time, "turtling" became a way of survival and means of income in the Caymans. By the 19th century, however, the turtle population around the islands was near depleted and commerce centered on the Green Sea Turtle shifted to the Caribbean off the coast of Nicaragua in Central America.
During the 20th century, turtles were still caught and used for their meat in the Caymans, however, the depletion of the species around the islands made it impossible locally for turtling to continue to be a viable source of income. In 1968, American and British investors - Irvin Naylor, Henry Hamlin, Samuel Ayres, III, and Anthony G.A. Fisher - obtained licensing from the Cayman Islands government and grouped together to found Mariculture, Limited. Mariculture named this venture "The Cayman Turtle Farm" and it was the first commercial enterprise to domesticate Green Sea Turtles. It is founded as Mariculture Ltd by Irvin Naylor, Henry Hamlin, Dr. Samuel Ayres III & Anthony G.A. Fisher with the blessing of and an exclusive franchise from the Cayman Islands Government. While Mariculture worked to domesticate the sea animal, protection regulations prevented the sale of all turtle products in the United States and other countries, limiting the commercial value of Mariculture's product. By the mid-1970s, the facility housed near 100,000 turtles. Unable to sell their products, the corporation filed bankruptcy in 1975 and was subsequently purchased by an investment group from Germany. In 1983, the farm was for sale again - this time it was purchased by the Cayman Islands government and the facility was renamed "Cayman Turtle Farm, Limited".
With the farm becoming successful in breeding and researching the Green Sea Turtle as well as the Kemp's ridley sea turtle, the farm became one of the most successful tourist attractions in the Caymans by the turn of the 21st century.
The farm is 23 acres and featured predators, birds, caiman, and other creatures in addition to turtles.
In 2001, however, a severe setback to the success of the farm as an attraction and breeding and research facility located next to the sea occurred on November 4, 2001, when large waves generated by Hurricane Michelle inundated the facility. The hurricane was located 90 miles southwest of Grand Cayman and produced little wind, but the waves washed turtles of all sizes from hatchlings to 600 pound adults out to sea. Cayman residents responded to help rescue the turtles and many were saved at the time. For months thereafter, the yellow-tagged turtles from the farm were spotted around the island for following Hurricane Michelle. 75% of the breeding turtles were lost. The farm's release and meat supply programs were reduced in an effort to build up the population following the event.
As a result of the disaster, the Cayman Islands government conceived a new vision for the farm when the breeding pond was relocated across West Bay Road from the current facility. The new and more modern facility was far enough away from the sea that it would no longer be in danger of high seas such as had been experienced during the 2001 hurricane season. As well, the new park became an expanded facility to include a nature park. The new tourist facility was named "Boatswain's Beach". Following the expansion, the entire park contained 23 acres that included a nature trail and aviary as well as a reef lagoon where visitors could snorkel with native fish and other local sea life, including the Green Sea Turtle. A fresh water lagoon and waterfall was also included in addition to a predator tank where reef sharks would habitate. Visitors were still allowed entry to the areas around the turtle breeding and feeding tanks. In 2010 the facility changed its name from "Boatswain's Beach" to "Cayman Turtle Farm: Island Wildlife Encounter" and in 2012 it added a water slide feature to its fresh water lagoon.
The Cayman Turtle Farm is the only facility of its kind in the world. It is also the only facility to have achieved the 2nd generation of sea turtles bred in captivity. It was also the first facility to successfully breed the endangered Kemp's Ridley turtle in captivity. Approximately 100 scientific papers have been presented or published based on work in collaboration with researchers at Cayman Turtle Farm. The largest turtle at the facility is Sparky, a 70-year-old female that weighs about 550 pounds.
Recently, the Cayman Turtle Farm has come under attack from animal welfare and conservation groups who claim the farm is failing to meet the welfare needs of the animals in its care and poses a threat to wild turtle conservation. International animal protection group, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) cites poor water quality, overcrowding, unsupervised human handling, heightened levels of disease and congenital defects amongst the captive bred creatures.
Joined in support by the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the world’s oldest turtle conservation group, WSPA has launched a campaign to stop the Cayman Turtle Farm from breeding sea turtles for human consumption. Sir Paul McCartney, former member of The Beatles has supported the campaign and urged the farm to shift towards a more humane, sustainable and profitable alternative.
In the House of Commons, Early Day Motion (EDM) 612, entitled’ Cayman Turtle Farm’ calls on the UK Government to condemn the practices of producing turtle meat for consumption and help assist the farm in moving towards practices that promote the protection of turtles instead.
The captive breeding programme at the Cayman Turtle farm has long-since attracted criticism from conservation groups who claim that the farm runs the risk of introducing infectious diseases into the wild by releasing turtles that have been bred in captive conditions. Experts also claim that programmes of this kind fail to address the root causes of turtle decline and efforts would be better spent tackling illegal poaching – a problem that still continues in the Cayman Islands. However a panel of four international turtle experts that inspected the farm in December 2012 concluded that the farm had a “positive conservation impact” because it provided turtle meat to local consumers thus alleviating poaching of the wild population, it augmented the local turtle nesting population through past turtle releases, it enabled applied research of the animals over four decades, and it increased awareness of marine turtle conservation.
In addition to claims of animal cruelty, the farm’s business model has come under scrutiny for being uneconomical. According to WSPA, the Cayman Turtle Farm is making an average loss of over nine million Cayman dollars (approximately $10,976,000 US dollars) a year over the past five years and represents a huge burden for the tax payer. In April 2013 the Cayman Turtle Farm released data showing however that there are several positive indicators in its financial performance in recent years.
The Cayman Turtle Farm has denied the allegations of cruelty and congenital defects, and stands by its claim to have released 31,000 green turtles into the wild since it was first established. WSPA has stated that on average, the farm has only released 27 turtles per year since 2007. The Cayman Turtle Farm has confirmed that after Hurricane Michelle wiped out 75 per cent of its breeding population, the farm cut back the number of releases annually, but as stocks rebuild its recent releases have been increasing, with 75 turtles released in 2011 and 150 in 2012. The Cayman Islands Department of the Environment has released data showing that turtles released as hatchlings or yearlings from Cayman Turtle Farm decades ago, are becoming sexually mature and are returning as adults to nest on Grand Cayman's beaches. Between 1999 and 2003, the mean annual number of green sea turtle nests in Grand Cayman was 16.4. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of green sea turtle nests on the island in recent years, reaching a high of 181 green sea turtle nests in 2012. Sightings of "living-tagged" nesting turtles have confirmed that some of these nests were laid by turtles released from Cayman Turtle Farm.